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Better Breast Cancer Detection


Women may soon have access to safer, more comfortable, inexpensive, and accurate breast scans that find early-stage cancers. Breast cancer affects one in eight women in the U.S., and it is the second most common and fatal cancer.

Currently, the only routine breast-screening technology is mammography, an awkward and unpleasant procedure that uses x-rays to scan through tissue and capture on film a two-dimensional (2D) image of the breast.

Los Alamos scientists Lianjie Huang and Kenneth M. Hanson and collaborators have developed a better way, producing a three-dimensional (3D) image, using sound waves instead of dangerous x-rays.

Utrasonic tests can detect early-stage breast cancers. Ultrasonic evaluation of breast lesions is desirable because it is quick, inexpensive, and does not expose the patient to potentially harmful ionizing radiation. Improved image quality and resolution enables earlier detection and more accurate diagnoses of tumors, thus reducing the number of biopsies performed, increasing treatment options, and lowering mortality and remission percentages.

X-ray mammography cannot accurately detect small tumors. Additionally, mammography subjects the patient to ionizing radiation, which carries inherent risks.

This view of a 3D ultrasound CT image was obtained, from a patient, using KCI's prototype device. This view of a 3D ultrasound CT image was obtained, from a patient, using KCI's prototype device. It shows a cross section of the breast near the chest wall (top of image) and a vertical cross section through the remainder of the breast. A tumor (red) is visible near the chest wall.

How it Works

The technique, called ultrasound-computed tomography (ultrasound CT), uses a prototype scanning device built at Karmanos Cancer Institute (KCI). A woman's breast is immersed in water and surrounded by a ring-shaped array of hundreds of ultrasound elements. Each element emits ultrasound waves and then receives waves that are scattered from the soft tissue. The array is moved incrementally down the entire breast, gathering data at each step.

A suite of newly developed computer algorithms converts the stepwise ultrasound data into a series of high-resolution, 2D images and then turns the series into a single 3D image. The technology actually obtains three kinds of images, corresponding to the speed, attenuation, and reflectivity of the waves.

Ultrasonic imaging takes advantage of differences in the interactions of acoustic waves with tissues of varying material properties. The interactions of the waves and the tissue cells are governed by wave-propagation physics and involve the following three phenomena: the speed of acoustic waves, scattering, and attenuation.

The Laboratory collaborated on this project with researchers from KCI, London's Imperial College, and Stanford University.

Ultrasound CT has the potential to detect cancer in its earliest stages. And since it is both safer and more comfortable, it should prove an attractive alternative for future breast cancer screening.